Nowadays, being a great job candidate involves more than just possessing experience and qualifications.
Hiring managers often aim to know how you usually approach conflict in the workplace since work often involves interacting with different people in various situations.
So when a hiring manager asks you, “Describe a situation where you disagreed with someone and how you handled it,” how do you respond?
Here are some experts’ insights.
Ron Auerbach, MBA
Educator | Career Coach | Job Search Expert |
Author, Think Like an Interviewer: Your Job Hunting Guide to Success
Some people have actually been in this situation; others have not. But with workplaces being a collection of individuals having different personalities, ways of doing things, etc, there may come a time when you have disagreements. For example, disagreements over policies, strategies, approaches, timing, money, the numbers, etc.
Employers and recruiters would like to know how well you’d fit in with the others in terms of whether you would play well or not. How you have or would handle whatever kind of disagreement that might come up is helpful in making the right hiring decision.
This interview question is a test of your personality, decision-making capabilities, and ability to solve problems.
It’s partly looking at how well you can interact with others and get along. It’s also assessing your ability to recognize and deal with problems. And it’s helping to provide insight into how well you can make decisions.
Show the interviewer that you recognize disagreements can arise for a number of reasons
For example, you might disagree with somebody else’s approach or you may disagree with another’s numbers or research. Understanding that workplaces are families with a variety of individual personalities is very important. Sometimes you’ll be on the same page; other times, you might butt heads.
Emphasize that you maintained your level of professionalism
With any disagreement, it’s extremely important to maintain your level of professionalism and behave like an adult. This means being respectful and keeping your emotions and body under control.
For example, you do not want to lash out by yelling and screaming at others or throwing things around. These are childish and unprofessional behaviors! You don’t want them getting the sense that you’re a hot-head who’s quick-tempered and easily upset.
It’s important they see you as somebody who’s cool under pressure and has a thicker skin. Someone who recognizes that disagreements will happen yet it’s no reason to lose your cool. So explain your understanding of these things.
This interview question could be asked in two ways. One is the general describing of a situation where you disagreed and how you handled it. The second is describing a work situation where you disagreed and handled it.
The two are basically the same in terms of proper ways to handle things and the level of professionalism to show. But the second is designed to see if you’ve actually been in a work disagreement or know what kind of thing would become a workplace disagreement.
Be prepared for both of these because you won’t know which might be asked. And with any situation you use, whether it’s real or something you just made up, explain exactly how you handled it or would handle it.
If you’re actually been there, briefly recall the incident and go through the steps you had taken. And if you feel you made any mistakes, let the interviewer know. More importantly, continue on to how you’d deal with that situation now if it came up again.
In other words, point out any mistake(s) you originally made and your fix(es). This highlights your problem-solving abilities. It also illustrates your ability to learn from past mistakes, which is a good thing!
Sepand Zarrabi, CPHR, SHRM-SCP
Director of Permanent Recruiting & Executive Search Services, TPD
As with almost all interview questions, the best approach for coming up with the most suitable answer is to ask yourself why the interviewer is asking the question, what they are really trying to find out.
In this case, the interviewer is likely trying to assess your ability to resolve a disagreement in a productive manner without causing further conflict. Here is how I would personally respond to this question:
Acknowledge that disagreements happen
“I can think of many examples where a colleague and I have disagreed on a course of action … In my opinion, a lack of disagreement in the workplace is a sign of an underlying lack of engagement or trust. So I think disagreement is perfectly normal, and actually a positive sign.”
Demonstrate that you are open-minded and do not let your ego get in the way
“I’ve found that the best approach is to ask the person ‘help me understand why you think your approach is best?’ and then make sure I listen with an open mind and even repeat back what they’ve said …
I then reiterate the fact that we want the same end result (which is to do what’s best for the company) and explain the benefits of my side. I find that once people feel heard, they are much more open to hearing the other side.”
To avoid an awkward silence after answering the question, you can follow it up with “Does this address your question?”
Lastly, make the response your own. You can have the most amazing answer in the world, but if it comes across rehearsed, it won’t get you far. Genuinity is key.
Director of Operations, MyCorporation.com
Be mindful of how you answer the question of how you handle a disagreement with someone in the workplace.
Your answer should not be one that details acting out in an aggressive manner, nor should it be that you have never had a disagreement with someone at work before and try to avoid conflict at all costs.
Admit to stepping up and taking responsibility if you were in the wrong
Detail how you were able to communicate directly with the coworker you disagreed with and work towards a resolution.
Finally, share what you learned from this experience and how you were able to turn a negative moment into one that taught you a lesson and allowed you to grow as a communicator and within your role.
Police Lieutenant | Recruitment Officer, Property Crimes Bureau |
Finance Blogger, Arrest Your Debt
From an interview perspective, I look for how people resolve conflict and if they do it appropriately for the given situation. For example, if the interview is not for a supervisory position, I would want the applicant to answer in a certain manner.
As a leader, I welcome disagreements, I don’t want “yes people” on my team, I want people who will challenge the status quo. However, these disagreements must be respectful.
If peers are disagreeing, I expect them to do everything they can to work it out on their own. They should not involve their supervisor unless they are at an impasse.
Focus on the value of respect in disagreements
Employees should be respectful at all times and weigh the pros and cons of situations while focusing on trying to see an obstacle from all perspectives.
By giving honest reflection and “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” often disagreements can be mitigated. We can have disagreements in the workplace but in the end, we all need to remain professional.
However, if the employee is disagreeing with their supervisor, I would want to hear that although they may disagree, they respect the role of their supervisor and will ultimately follow the decision of the supervisor.
If the employee was interviewing for a supervisory position, I would expect them to answer this question a bit differently. If they disagreed with an employee who worked for them, I would expect them to give the employee a voice.
The employee’s concern and disagreement should be heard and vetted. Often the best answers are “in the room” and not necessarily the supervisor’s answer. As a leader, I understand how important it is to speak with others before I make a decision.
I expect my supervisors to act in a similar manner. Their employees should feel comfortable disagreeing with them in a respectful manner but ultimately I want my supervisor to know that they are the final say.
As a supervisor, my employees have disagreed with me but ultimately if I made a decision that was unpopular, that was my decision and it is final. Sometimes supervisors are required to make unpopular and tough decisions.
Career Coach, The Big Game Hunter
Whenever you hear the question begins with “describe a situation where you” or “tell me about a time when you,” it is the cue for you to answer a behavioral interview question. Behavioral interview questions require that you tell them a story about a time in your past.
Employ the acronym S.O.A.R. (Situation, Objective, Action, Result) if you are a manager level and above. If you are at a staff level, use the acronym S.T.A.R.( Situation or Task, Action, Result).
Your answer should include the metric — money saved, money earned, or percentage improvement over what was there previously or percentage improvement over the average performance of others.
For a staff person, a sample answer is, “I may not have agreed with the choice, I saw that they were potential issues that we would run into. But this is the decision that we made and, as a result (notice that I used the phrase, ‘we made’) in my job was to do what I was asked to do the best of my ability and that’s what I went out to do.”
For a more experienced individual, talk about being in service to the leadership of the organization. Establish that what you did in support of the leadership was to identify problems that might come up and offer solutions. No recrimination. No criticism. “What I did was… “ And you go from there.
Obviously, they don’t want to hire someone who’s going to bark, “You know what I did! I fought tooth and nail for what I thought. I went over my boss’s head to tell s/he what an idiot they were!”
They know you’re not going to do that. What they want to hear is that you are supportive in that situation, helping them achieve what they intended to. If you are wrong, it is great to fess up to it in answering the question.
A good answer may also be, “I learned a lot from that project and that decision. I learned that there were things I did not know came into the equation and made the choice to write one. It was a good learning experience for me.”
Founder and Head Of Content Strategy, Hustle Life Media, Inc.
Even the most exceptional relationship has rough patches. There will always be a time where you won’t see eye to eye with your boss. It is always a good idea to prepare for these kinds of situations.
The ability to be calm in the face of turmoil is a great asset to have, especially in the workplace. You should always be professional when you’re at work.
Getting along will put you in a high position with your boss. It shows you’re able to work as a team and will highlight your problem-solving skills
Highlight your traits, skills, and experience that helped you defuse a volatile situation
Mention that you’re always calm and that you think before saying anything. You take a step back to ease the tension and go back once you have planned out everything you need to say.
Pick a private moment to talk about the issue in detail. Never argue in front of an audience, your boss will always win no matter what.
Explain the details in a very respectful way
When giving out details, the interviewer looks at how you present your case and your thought process. So be organized when you answer.
You should also talk about the importance of communicating and how to work things out during a disagreement. And lastly, end by telling what you learned from this situation and how to use this in the future.
HR Professional, Choosing Therapy
Explain that each person processes information differently based on their temperament
When I’m working with others, I focus on how they typically think and work. For example, if the person I disagree with is very structured and detail-oriented, I know I need to give them more time and information to review before I bring the issue back up.
However, if it’s a direct type A person I’m working with, I’ll often ask them to consider options. I know what direct control-oriented individuals need to feel like they’re making the choice.
In other words, one should tailor how to deal with disagreements to the person they are interacting with.
Acknowledge that it is important to focus on career objectives
I’ve learned that focusing on the larger objectives, i.e., company goals, family values, and not being distracted by the person’s temperament, makes it much easier to hear each person’s point of view and come to a middle ground, even if it’s not as fast or exactly as I would have preferred.
For example, I have a client who regularly disagrees with me on how to do a task. He is rather blunt about it and rushed in his approach, as well as resistant to automated solutions.
Rather than disagree with him outright (which may cause resentment), I say that I understand where he’s coming from. Then I pivot to a higher-level goal he wants to accomplish (better, faster, cheaper) and share my rationale for wanting to do that task differently, perhaps using an automated solution.
Once I tie my rationale to something he can agree with, he often concedes. It’s a process to get to an agreement when two people come from different points of view.
Executive Director, California Municipal Utilities Association
Describe the disagreement and how you took the initiative to go to the person you disagreed with
Don’t bring in the boss or a co-worker, except to seek advice on how to word the response. That is, don’t bring in someone else to step in for you to resolve it. I’m looking for you to take responsibility and initiative for resolving problems. That’s the kind of self-starter I want in my business.
Anytime during an interview when you’re asked to describe a past experience or situation, make sure you use details and specifics rather than telling a general story. Including details in your story makes it seem more real and believable, and it’s also a way for the interviewer to learn more about you.
Stress that you handled the situation maturely
When interviewers ask this question in an interview, they want to know that you’re able to handle conflict with maturity. So, make sure to focus on your maturity in your answer.
Don’t simply say that the person you were disagreeing with was wrong and you were right; instead, explain how you calmly and gracefully maneuvered the situation to avoid any further conflict.
Founder and CEO, GetVoIP
The point of this question, from an interviewer’s perspective, is to find out how good the interviewee is at conflict resolution. When answering, highlight that:
- You did not steamroll the person you disagreed with.
- You did not cave to all demands.
Explain taking both perspectives into account with a solution that felt fair to both parties
For example, “I disagreed with a colleague on how best to handle sensitizing employees against phishing. I preferred using phishing simulations sparingly, while they wanted to inundate employees with phishing simulations so that they would always be on guard. After discussions, where we both justified our different approaches, we decided on a 50/50 spread.
We would up the simulations, but watch against doing it too much. The decision felt fair to both of us and it allowed us to continue working together for the good of the company.”
Chief Investigator and Owner, North American Investigations
It is crucial to know how candidates handle confrontations to assess if they’re capable of engaging in a healthy discussion. With that said, the best tip I can give candidates is to ask yourself these questions:
- How did both parties settle the conflict?
- What compromises did you have to make to satisfy valid points of the opposite party?
- What compromises did the other party make to meet your valid points?
When you reflect on these questions, you can explain how you turned a previously hostile situation into a relationship of truce where both parties consider the valid points of the opposite party.
Founder, Ask Vida
Emphasize the importance of finding a middle ground with your co-workers
Disagreements can lead to tension in the workplace and tension can lead to oversight and lost productivity. This question shows employers how you handle conflict by giving you an opportunity to discover the problem and find a middle ground with your coworkers.
Walk the employer through each step of your process and set the scene. If you leave out specifics, you run the risk of leaving the missing pieces up to the employer.